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University of Toronto Quarterly 75.2 (2006) 752-770
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Shadows in the Soul:
Racial Haunting in the Poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott
Now have the ages met in the Northern midnight,
And on the lonely, loon-haunted Nipigon reaches
Rises the hymn of triumph and courage and comfort,
Tones that were fashioned when the faith brooded in darkness,
Joined with sonorous vowels in the noble Latin,
Now are married with the long-drawn Ojibwa,
Uncouth and mournful.
Thus does Duncan Campbell Scott (1862–1947) in the central stanzas of 'Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon' (1905) present an instance of the blending of European and Native in the Canadian wilderness near the beginning of the twentieth century. In using the word 'haunted' to describe the 'lonely ... reaches' of Lake Nipigon, Scott was enlisting two senses of the word to suggest that the landscape of western Ontario is frequented or inhabited by loons and to evoke the long-standing association of the loon's cry with the supernatural. But the 'reaches' of Lake Nipigon are not the only features of Scott's poem that are 'haunted.' Literary and ideological presences charged with the Victorian colonizing impulse and tradition haunt its every line: the perception of the event that it describes as a meeting of 'ages' conjures levels and degrees of civilization; the 'faith' that brood[s] in [its] darkness' [End Page 752] is imbued with the Spirit that 'sat brooding on the vast Abyss' in the opening invocation in Paradise Lost (1:21); and hovering over the poem as a whole is the entire tradition of Christian proselyting within the European imperial project. Nor are these the only literary and ideological presences that haunt 'Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon.' An emanation of George Monro Grant's Ocean to Ocean: Sanford Fleming's Expedition through Canada in 1872 can be recognized in the scenario of the poem,2 as can manifestations of the racial and linguistic stereotypes that make Latin 'noble' and Ojibwa 'uncouth.' With the word 'married' Scott figures the blending of voices, languages, cultures, and races 'in the Northern midnight' as a harmonious union of alterities, but in the five poems to be examined here – 'The Onondaga Madonna' (1898), 'The Half-Breed Girl' (1906), 'Powassan's Drum' (1926), 'A Scene at Lake Manitou' (1935), and 'At Gull Lake: August, 1810' (1935) – what he terms the 'Uncouth,' the 'pagan,' and the 'savage' are not conducive or amenable to harmony but, rather, haunting spectres that manifest themselves in alarming, threatening, and even deadly ways.
Both because they are a major part of the oeuvre of a canonical Canadian poet and because that poet was an increasingly powerful figure – eventually deputy chief superintendent – in the federal Department of Indian Affairs from 1879 to his retirement in 1932, Scott's poems about Native peoples and people of Native origin are of very special interest and consequence. As a poet, Scott occupied a carry-forward position between the [End Page 753] poets of the Confederation group, whose interest in Native mythology and spirituality he expanded and transformed, and the poets of the modern movement in Canada, who found more to admire in his poetry than in that of any other member of the Confederation group, except, perhaps, Archibald Lampman. As a bureaucrat, Scott had a major impact on the formulation and administration of policies pertaining to Canada's Native peoples and on the perception and conception of their characteristics and traditions in political as well as bureaucratic circles. Steadfast in his conviction that 'the Government will in time reach the end of its responsibility as the Indians progress into civilization and finally disappear as a separate and distinct people ... by gradual assimilation with their fellow-citizens' (Addresses, 2:423), he nevertheless asked the readers of his poems to consider the persistence of racial traits as psychologically detrimental to individuals of mixed races and as a possible impediment to the process of assimilation. In this...